The Night Shift

Night and day. They've been opposites since the opening lines of “Genesis.” On the one side are light, color, and Katie Couric. On the other, mushrooms, vampires, and Conan O'Brien. Strangely, though, it's the daytime devils that are most in need of banishment. Deadlines, accounts, tax forms: You can't get rid of them with a plug-in Donald Duck lamp. You need something higher proof.

Many will tell you that not much happens in this town after dark. What's more, our city's planners have tried hard since Puritan times to make sure of it, what with blue laws, noise restrictions, no smoking, no having any kind of fun whatsoever. But we know better. We asked six Bostonians to show us what they do when the ledger closes on the day. None of them chose the multiplex or the sofa. Their motive? It's written on cocktail napkins, on menus, and, perhaps, in scratches on the bathroom wall.

The Cosmopolitan

Dinner at Pomodoro in the North End, drinks at the Ladder District's Limbo — these worldly women know the city's hottest spots and coolest people.

Twenty-eight-year-old Isis Arnesen speaks three languages, owns more than 20 pairs of shoes, and vacations in Haiti. She's as comfortable ordering a Valdepeñas in Madrid as buying a lemon slush in Jamaica Plain, where she works as a preschool teacher. There's not much time to cook, so a good deal of her income flows in the direction of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association and its members. On this particular Saturday evening it's the North End, and Pomodoro's chicken carbonara.

Arnesen dresses in a blouse and tight beige trousers, which, while not conservative, would hardly prompt a shake of the Bible. “I go out to dress up,” she says. “When you go out, it's a little like being an actor, since you're not playing the part you play all week.”

Since her fiancé is busy, it's ladies' night with friend Lis. “I only go to places where I know there's good food,” says Arnesen. She frowns and drops the name of a well-known Newbury Street restaurant. “They microwave.”

The ladies show no pickiness. They devour bread, wine, and unashamed bowls of pasta. They declare the food “to die for.” As for the conversation, it hovers on work before settling into an anecdote about a disastrous evening at Sophia's tapas bar and dance club. The crux of the story is a Stalinist movement policy between the floors. “You don't want to go to a place where they tell you what to do,” she says. “You want to go to a place where they take care of you.”

And that's exactly what they do at the next stop, Limbo in the Ladder District, where they meet their friend Katrina. Arnesen greets her with a kiss on both cheeks, and she does the same with the waitstaff. One of them arranges a table even though the bar is packed to the point of lewdness.

“I like to go out and see other people looking nice and having a good time,” says Arnesen, sipping a Bombay Sapphire and tonic. “Oh, God. Look at that one,” she says, noticing a handsome gentleman enter the room.

“He looks like that tacky man from the Enrique Iglesias video,” says Lis.

“Ah. Mickey Rourke.”

And thus onward, until the flagging of the taxi.

The Suburbanites

For this sophisticated couple, Saturday night means painting the town red — and a night off from Blue's Clues.

If the trickle-down theory of economics is at all true, then the tender pork with flageolets and oyster mushrooms at Radius will save America. Or, rather, those who order it will, since while it may be delicate to the palate, it's part of a menu that's the wallet's version of Ex-Lax. Stephen and Betsy Demirjian can afford the odd binge, though. They can also afford to invest in the restaurant, and they do.

On a Saturday evening the fortysomething Demirjians, who live in Weston, put aside their house and two children and make the trip to Radius, right under the gaze of Stephen's Financial District office. Their goal is a relaxing evening with another successful, procreative couple, Doug and Lisa. The ladies wear casual elegant, the men wear business confidence. Inside Radius's glowing modern bar they order glowing modern drinks. Watermelon margaritas. Champagne.

“We try to take one night of the week and make it 'play night,'” says Stephen. “It's not always going out to Radius. We could spend a Saturday night buying sandwiches and going to the movies and be just as happy.”

When the party moves to sit, it's greeted by dishes of steak tartare, compliments of the kitchen. Betsy looks ruefully at the molded beef, raw eggs glistening on top like great nipples of cholesterol. “I even order Chateaubriand medium well,” she says. “The waiters hate it.”

Beet salads arrive, and the talk hops from travel (college days in England, Australian honeymoon, sharks) to caviar (Armenian superiority, New York specialty bars, James Bond imagery) and settles on restaurants (Waltham, Cibo, tuna sushi martinis). “The kids come out with us a lot,” says Betsy, laughing. “Our eight-year-old is asking us to take her to Via Matta.”

“In this day and age there's a lot of places that treat you like dirt,” says Stephen. “But here we have a great meal, and they treat us like royalty. Not that that's the most important thing. What's important is good food and being with the people you want to be with, so the conversation flows.”

Much of it sluices in the direction of children. Betsy complains about her mother spoiling her kids, but the way she says, “She'll be buying them BMWs next,” indicates that the crime might not be so great. Stephen, whose bluffness carries a whiff of Sonny Corleone about it, goes treacly at their mention. By 10:55, Betsy's shown a yawn. The drive home follows close by.

The Midnight Cowboys

After clearing the tables at the critics' favorite restaurants, these waiters make the real scene all night long.

If anyone ever thought that bats led inverted lives, they've never met a waiter. Waiters are the balancing numbers in the going-out equation, the support personnel, the faceless names in the Oscar speech without whom everything would have been impossible. Their business is nightlife, and they're personally very good at it.

“We realize that paying $9 for a cocktail is ridiculous,” says Manny Gonzales, a server at the stylish 33 and Les Zygomates. He's sitting at the achingly hip bar of the former, sipping a complimentary glass of Knob Creek. “Most of us aren't concerned about the scene. That's less important than going to a good place where you can talk with your friends.”

After work, Gonzales meets two other waiters, Patrick and Paul, at the downtown bar Silvertone. It's a fashionable place for restaurant folk since the drinks are economical and the setting, low-impact. Bukowski's, Ginza, and the South Street Diner are also popular, as is the B-Side Lounge in Cambridge. And, of course, the Franklin Café's nocturnal kitchen.

“Waitstaff do a lot of drinking,” says Patrick. “Midnight to 2 is like our lunchtime, so you're not ready to go to bed.” The combination of late hours and tips in hand is a ticket to sozzled penury.

“You're handling money all the time and it changes your perception of it,” says Gonzales. “Waiters become snobs because we're educated about good food and good wine. If I'm buying scotch, for example, I'm going to buy a 21-year-old single malt.” Paul agrees. “I may only earn $100 on Monday, but I'll spend $30 of it on a glass of Armagnac. And I only eat out.”

Smoke and shoptalk hang thick over the beer and gimlets. “As far as waiters go, I'm a homebody,” says Gonzales. “I might be home on Wednesday afternoons and Sunday nights. But compared to people with normal jobs, that's pretty extravagant.”

“I haven't been home in five days,” brags Paul.

At 2:15 the lights flare over a field of full ashtrays and empty glasses. Everybody blinks, looking for all the world like a nest of unearthed lizards. There's no appetite for pancakes, and it's rumored that the “cold tea” in Chinatown is just, scandalously, O'Doul's. The night is finished.

Outside, the streets are bare. The Blue Laws stretch out across the city. Somewhere near South Station, a bus is idling before it turns on the road to New York.

“The one place that was open after hours burned down,” reflects Patrick. “But it was always full of crackheads, anyway.”

The Single Girls

After a couple of sugary cocktails in darkly lit lounges, these women inevitably turn to their favorite topic: men.

BethAnn Hannah is the sort of girl you can see wearing a slinky dress in a Prohibition-era casino, her backdrop all pinstripes and Tommy guns. Literally. She appeared in a 1990s arcade game called Who Shot Johnny Rock? as an innocent bystander at the mercy of any stranger with a quarter. Hannah is far less helpless in her present milieu, though: a table for six at Mistral. It's the first of an evening's stops for her and a quintet of girlfriends.

“It gets a little like Sex and the City when we go out,” says Hannah, a 29-year-old manager at a Cambridge real estate company. No sooner are the ladies seated than their evening plumage draws the attention of four besuited cocktailers at the bar. “When I go out, I usually meet somebody,” says Hannah, an alumna of the beauty pageant scene. “Not that I'm looking for that. For me, going out is about having an experience. An adventure.”

The adventure begins in the form of a kir royale and a plate of tuna tartare. Then it's on to sour apple martinis. “Their radar is definitely on,” says Hannah, appearing not to notice the suits, who have now positioned themselves in a clearer line of sight.

As in any gathering of sophisticated young women, there are subjects that can hardly be avoided. Will & Grace is recapped, quoted, and digested. Then there's palm reading by Mary. One of the ladies, Jude, says that she's not averse to settling down.

“Me, I'm dating casually,” says Hannah. “I don't have to be in a relationship to be happy.”

But relationships carry an awful lot of conversational weight, and they stay with the table through salads and pizza. There's many a solemn utterance. Many a shaken head.

“A lot of women go after the bad boys, and then they wonder why they get hurt.”

After another round of royales, the girls make plans to hit Pravda and dance off the crème brûlée. Unfortunately, one of them has turned green on her last glass of Chablis. The evening is torpedoed. Only Hannah and Marcella, a visitor from Italy, are feeling game. Alas, games require players, and the dance floor is utterly desolate.

Hannah is philosophical about the evening's nosedive.

“When I go out,” she reflects over a Captain and Coke, “I'm not worried about the stock market, my managerial responsibilities, or that pile of laundry. I'm just living for now, this moment. Sometimes it's good just to appreciate the present.”

The Renaissance Man

No mindless club chatter for this visual artist. A night out needs art, local music, and hole-in-the-wall bars.

At 10 o'clock on a Thursday night, the patrons at Bukowski's Tavern look like they've been sifted from a dumpster outside a Limp Bizkit concert. They're bearded and boozy, and many of them have that Newbury Comics chic that comes from the strained concept of safety pin as accessory. Thirty-year-old Russell Moore cuts a conservative, polo-shirted figure here. He's a visual artist and he follows the local music scene, but he's also a Web-site designer. His only nod to the odd is a Luke Skywalker haircut, but even that wouldn't be out of place on a Mormon.

“I like places where there aren't too many college kids,” he says. “Buke's. Brendan Behan's in Jamaica Plain. I love the Cantab. Sometimes my fiancée and I go to the newer clubs downtown, but I'm more comfortable in a place like this.”

Comfortable as it is, it's as noisy as a Kandinsky painting, and after a beer Moore crosses Boylston and heads down Hereford to a little gallery called New Art on Newbury.

“I go to a lot of parties at art galleries,” he says. “You know, works on the wall, cheese and crackers. Boston is small, so you always run into the same people. Like in the band scene, where everybody plays together, a lot of the way the art world works is somebody knows somebody. The parties get to be like a bizarre networking thing.”

The door of the gallery is open, even though it's late. Inside, there's a small circle of men who are doggedly killing a bottle of California chardonnay. This is opening night, and it's been raining.

The gallery sports Gloucester watercolors, photographs of flags, oils of Paris cafés, and rearing horses. Some of them are striking. Others would disgrace a Holiday Inn. The only unifying theme is their appeal to owner Tom McCarthy, an advertising executive reborn as an artist after the post-September 11 downturn. “The works are from people just starting out, so they're affordable,” he says. He's not kidding. There's a children's corner at the back where you can get a deal in crayon for $10.

“I like this place because it's community oriented,” says Moore, sipping a glass of sparkling water. Though several crackers occupy a plastic plate, the cheese is but a memory, and while the mood may not be somber, it's resigned. “I had 150 people come in tonight, and they didn't buy a goddamn thing,” McCarthy says, laughing stoically. “It's called retail.”

Moore shuffles his way down the walls, commenting politely. His own art is all digital, and he ends up bandying a proposal to work on the gallery Web site in exchange for display space. The matter ends with a handshake, by which time the party has flat-lined.